Thursday, September 22, 2016

Skewering the Flaccid Calf

I read a few more short stories by Evelyn Waugh this week and loved them. I wasn’t sure I would: I have to admit that the first story in the volume was almost incomprehensible to me, and as I stumbled my way through it earlier this summer, I started to think I’d regret having used up a slot in my reading schedule in this way. But beginning with the second title, I found exactly what I had hoped for when I planned ten years ago to read Waugh’s short stories in year 10.

This week’s stories began with “On Guard,” an excellent comedy about a dog who deliberately interferes with his owner's love affairs. You see, Hector has bought the dog (whom he has eponymously named Hector) to give to his “fiancée,” Millicent, while he goes away to start his career, and has given little Hector careful instructions to guard his (the elder Hector’s) interests while he is away. Millicent abandons her attachment to her soul-mate after two brief letters and sees many eligible men, so her new pet has quite a lot of work to do. Even though Millicent feeds him, the canine Hector works against her flirtatious ways per the instructions of the man who purchased him because, as Waugh’s narration tells us, the dog respected money.

Yes, Waugh is the kind to make us ask: What do the paterfamilias of a crumbling earldom and a dog have in common? The author loves to ridicule upper-class values by putting them into the minds of animals, neurotics, and lunatics. In “Mr. Loveday's Little Outing,” Lady Moping sees nothing odd or distasteful about her husband going to the asylum (except that he has made his suicide attempt in front of the guests): the asylum serves quite suitably as a new home for her beloved because it separates the accommodations according to social station. And in any case, the situation puts the annoyance of a husband aside for a few years. Conversely, Lady Moping’s daughter sees nothing to fear from an inmate who acts every inch the gentleman – until she succeeds in getting him a day’s outing and he plays the psychopath again. But not to worry about the corpse left behind: Mr. Loveday will go back to the asylum, where he can enjoy the lovely garden that only the patients with true blood are allowed to visit. The tale’s breezy tone makes its caustic message all the more pointed.

Waugh’s upper-class characters live in a world of hollow traditions and act according to established forms void of any interpersonal sentiments. Engagements are amusements that last a week or so. Correspondence between separated friends, fiancés, and spouses always tapers off; their early assurances of devotion are all lies anyway and usually go unread. The image is one not of meaningless chaos but rather one of faded glory, of the flaccid skin of a once-fatted calf now starving, of a good world gone bad. But Waugh has a grander tragedy to tell as well. His effete lords of society serve as both symptom and symbol of a Christian world that has lost its Way. Sometimes when I read Waugh I laugh. Sometimes I cry. And sometimes I just stand powerless, like ancient philosophy’s horse attracted evenly by two equidistant piles of hay.

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